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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Tester Rankled By Utah Senator Blocking Public Lands, Little Shell Bills

Montana Sen. Jon Tester
Senator Jon Tester

U.S. Senator Mike Lee probably won’t get a Christmas card this year from Montana Senator Jon Tester. That's because Tester says he's, “A little frustrated with Senator Lee at this moment in time.”

Lee, a Republican from Utah, unilaterally blocked a bill last week that would have granted federal recognition to Montana’s Little Shell Tribe. As Montana Public Radio reported, Lee objected to fast-tracking the bill in the Senate. He pointed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs 2009 denial of the Little Shell’s petition for federal recognition.

"I'm aware of no legal analysis indicating that the conclusion of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2009 was inadequate or flawed. For that reason, I object,” Lee said.

The Little Shell’s decades-long quest for federal recognition has the support of Montana’s entire congressional delegation. Lee’s objection rankled Democrat Tester.

“Look, I don’t know what the problem is with Senator Lee. But, the bottom line is if you take a look at the Little Shell, the documents are all there for recognition. They need to be recognized.”

Tester's exasperation with Lee doesn’t end there. Lee blocked a last-minute push this month to pass legislation that would have provided medical benefits to Vietnam War Navy Veterans who say they were exposed to Agent Orange. Lee said he wanted to see more evidence. Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi balked at the measure’s price tag, which ranges from $1-billion to $5-billion-dollars. The bill would be paid for by new fees on VHA mortgages.

Mike Lee and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul were the only two lawmakers to oppose a public lands bill last week. That package included the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation fund and the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act.

Montana's congressional delegation, including Tester, supported the measures.

“If you take a look at the Yellowstone Gateway Bill, this is the headwaters of the Yellowstone on the border of Yellowstone National Park, an absolutely critical area of land which he could not even pick out on a map," Tester said. "If you take a look at the Blue Water Navy folks, these are folks who served in Vietnam, who went there, who did their jobs, were exposed to Agent Orange – the studies bear that out, and he’s [Lee] saying, ‘Too bad. This country isn’t going to stand by you.’”

All these bills will now have to wait until next year for consideration. 

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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